How to Control Decision Fatigue

If you were a prisoner up for parole, wouldn’t you hope that the ruling of a judge would be based on compelling facts, history of good behavior, or even your signs of remorse?  What if I told you the largest determining factor would be the amount of time since the Judge's last break?

A study by Princeton University found “the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break.”

Why does this happen, and why is this so important to us?

Last week, we discussed the effects of information overload. This is the largest drain of the decision process, it is vital in each choice and thus needs careful management. If we can though, why would we not attempt to eliminate any unneeded draining decisions all-together?

As shown in the case of the judges above, we have a finite number of decisions before we need a break. Each decision we make comes with a cost. The price is the quality of our decisions and the care taken on even very serious choices. Below we will discuss the topic of decision fatigue in more detail and how we can work to avoid its adverse effects.

Defining Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. The power and effects of this condition are recognized and avoided by names like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Albert Einstein who in their everyday clothing options limited themselves to one or two choices to reduce the number of decisions they make daily.

“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community,” - Mark Zuckerberg

Avoiding Decision Fatigue 

The three main factors in combating decision fatigue are making fewer decisions, automating common decisions, and developing a strong routine.

1.) Make Fewer Decisions:

Simple enough right?

Few of us actually put forth the effort to reduce the number of choices we make daily. Obviously, we do not have the option to stop eating or wearing clothes, but there are multiple decisions we should avoid making on a regular basis.

Decisions as simple as figuring out where our friends want to go this weekend or as hard as allowing subordinates authority to answer questions and make their own decisions. 

View each decision you make as withdrawals from your bank account. Each comes with a cost, and we should be frugal with this reserve. Start consciously abstaining from unnecessary decision making today. This habit alone will conserve your mental capacities more than anticipated. 

2.) Automate Common Decisions:

Here is a quick list of most common (unavoidable) activities that can be automated to avoid wasting your decision-making ability:

  • What to Wear? Even if wearing the same outfit every day like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs sounds too extreme, the below list can be a large step in the right direction:
    • Put unused or seasonal clothes in the back of the closet, or in a box in the attic. Every time you pass that heavy sweater at the front of the closet your mind has to process and decide not to choose this option. 
    • Categorize your clothing. Place work clothes together, workout clothes together, leisure...etc. Place the work clothes at the front of the closet. This again will cut down on the options your mind has to search through in looking for the type of clothing you need.
    • If you want to reduce your daily decision fatigue a step further, lay your clothes out nightly. Even if you do not do this, or forget, the earlier steps will greatly simplify your decision process for clothing choices.
  • What to eat? Too often we allow the what and when we eat questions to change by the day. A Cornell University study (Wansink and Sobal, 2007) found we make 226.7 of our daily decisions on food alone.
    • When: Get on a schedule for eating. Your time, as well as your body, will thank you. Once your appetite adjusts to this schedule you will limit the confusion of getting hungry at random times and wondering when to stop to eat.
    • What: You can go the full meal prep route if you want to take your decision automation to the ultimate level. If not, the simple pairing down of decisions to a few options will work. My wife and I keep a running list of meals we like to prepare and at the beginning of the week make a loose meal plan for the week. This makes for primarily two simple questions during the week; are we cooking or eating leftovers? On the occasion a craving hits us, we will go out to eat but this also simplifies the decision of where to go.  
  • Digital Devices: Clean up apps, desktops, and web browsers
    • Phone: Same as our closets, our phones should not be a mess of seldom used or uncategorized apps.
      • Make a point to remove seldom used apps or at least move them to the second or third home screens. 
      • Furthur, use the file functions on your phone to group together common apps (i.e. business specific, health apps, banking apps, social apps...etc). This serves the function of organizing apps for ease of locating and using.
      • Finally and most importantly, make more distracting apps more difficult to access for "just a minute" by placing them on a second or third home screen.
    • Web browser: Simplify or make the home tab screen of your web browser something productive. Do not allow your home tab or the new tab option open on distracting websites. Again, this is just asking for a segway down a distracting path that, even if you can resist, requires the processing of a decision to click away.

3.) Develop Strong Routines:

    The final factor that will not only assist in reducing decision fatigue but also promote many facets of a healthy lifestyle is developing routines. So much of the waste in our life and fatigue of processing decisions can be linked to the lack of routine in our lives. To allow yourself to wake at a different time every day, eat at random times daily, work sporadic times and try to "squeeze" workouts into the mix...etc. is asking for imminent failure and burnout from the processing required to decide when and what you will do in each above scenario. 

    Start with a loose schedule. To begin you do not need an extensive minute by minute plan. This will also be unsustainable. If you start with something that you can be successful with, you will build confidence and can plan in further detail as you find what works for you. Begin with a simple printout of days of the week and plan blocks of time for at minimum, morning routine (workout, breakfast, prep time...etc), workday, lunch and afternoon routine (free/social time, workout, dinner...etc).


    We, as decision makers, are faced with a countless number of choices to make daily. We are depended on by our teams to process and make the best decisions for all. It is a scientific fact the more choices you process, the more fatigue you experience, and the worse your decisions become. Take this cost to heart and begin the process of eliminating low return decisions, automating required decisions, and maintaining an airtight routine that is second nature. If you can do this, you will experience a more calm, satisfying and successful lifestyle, that will not only be a benefit to you, but also to any organization you serve.

     Action Steps

    1. For minimum one week, consciously abstain from any decision that does not have to be made by you. This includes any choices on where to eat, to placing responsibility on your subordinates/peers to make their own decisions.
    2. Automate your wardrobe decision process by moving unused/seasonal clothing and placing clothes into groups with work clothes being first in line.
    3. Delete unused apps from your phone, categorize the remaining in files, and move distracting apps to the second or third home screen.
    4. Create a simple week schedule that includes blocks of time for at minimum, morning routine (workout, breakfast, prep time...etc), workday, lunch and afternoon routine (free/social time, workout, diner...etc). Place this sheet in the front of your Manager's Journal and maintain this for one week tweak and repeat. Stop allowing unpredictability of the above daily tasks depleting your decision reserves.

    The principals presented in this article are those set forth inside The Manager’s Journal and an elaboration of those same ideals. If you enjoyed this post please feel free to share with others, like our Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and continue on to our website to try out The Manager’s Journal for yourself!

    Blessings In Your Endeavors,

    Ruben Watson

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